Bylsma setting right tone for Pens
PITTSBURGH -- Every once in awhile, you'll watch Dan Bylsma during post-practice shinny, and he'll dive to block a pass or he'll pump his fist in celebration when he scores in the shootout drill that ends many Pittsburgh Penguins practices.
OK, that part, the scoring part, doesn't happen all that often, but when it does, you can tell that inside the body of the Penguins' coach, there still beats the heart of a player.
Maybe that doesn't mean much when you're tied two games apiece in a second-round playoff series, as the Penguins are now heading into Saturday's Game 5 versus Montreal. But maybe it helps show how the personality of the man behind the Penguins' bench might just be the right fit for what is one of the toughest jobs in sports -- repeating as a Stanley Cup champion.
History tells us that what Bylsma and the Penguins are trying to do, deliver a second straight Stanley Cup to the city of bridges, is nigh on impossible. The Red Wings (1997-98) and Penguins (1991-92), then led by current owner Mario Lemieux, are the only teams to accomplish the feat since the dynastic era of the Edmonton Oilers back in the late 1980s. Since 1988, 15 other teams have tried to do what the Penguins are attempting and failed.
You see, everything changes when you win a Cup. The expectations of the fans and media change. The expectations of the players in the dressing room change. Everyone wants more; everyone expects more. But here's the thing about Bylsma: He might be the one constant in that complicated equation.
"You have to know your foundation, who you are, what you are about," Bylsma said in an interview this week. "And you have to go about acting that way regardless of the situation."
He's talking as much about life as he is the situation that now confronts his team, because for Bylsma, these are the basic tenets of things like character and work ethic, qualities that transcend a sport.
Sitting up in the stands at the Bell Centre this week, GM Ray Shero was watching the man he plucked out of Wilkes-Barre in February 2009 to lead his team after the players had seemed to tune out former coach Michel Therrien. One of the things -- and there are many -- Shero likes about Bylsma is how he responds to a tough loss. He moves on.
"If you know who you are, then you can recover quickly and keep moving forward regardless of the situation and when difficult situations come," Bylsma said.
Bylsma recalled a moment in Game 1 of this suddenly very tight series against the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens when he caught himself being someone he didn't recognize. He is reluctant to discuss the details, but we gather it involved perhaps being a little harsh with his players on the bench.
"That's not who I want to be," he said. "I critique myself the way I would a player."
And he told himself he wouldn't go down that path again.
Under Bylsma in the postseason, the Penguins are an uncanny 9-2 in games following losses. In both cases in which the Pens actually lost two playoff games in a row, against Washington and Detroit in the playoffs last season, they went on to win the series. That Bylsma has been able to maintain this frame of reference, that he has been able to stay tethered to the things he believes in, isn't surprising given his journey.
A player with a big mind for the game and a smaller skill set, Bylsma amazed even his family by becoming an NHL player. He played 429 NHL games and appeared in the 2003 Stanley Cup finals with the Anaheim Ducks. He would face his old coach, Mike Babcock, in last season's Cup finals, completing a remarkable storybook run from anonymity to timeless in a matter of months.
A year ago, the native of Grand Haven, Mich., was living out of a Marriott hotel in downtown Pittsburgh. His wife and son were in Wilkes-Barre, where he began the 2008-09 season in his first head-coaching job.
"I was green, but I didn't feel that way," Bylsma said of his first days in Pittsburgh.
He recalled former minor league coach Brad Shaw telling him his first 20 games as an AHL head coach would tell him whether he was cut out for coaching. Shaw turned out to be right; Bylsma led the Penguins on a torrid run down the stretch that saw him go 18-3-4, tied for the second-best opening 25 games of any coaching career in the history of the NHL.
Not that there wasn't a bit of the surreal connected to last spring's playoff run. Bylsma said he felt like he was living two lives, one as the guy coaching a team in the Stanley Cup playoffs, dealing with the fans, media and attention, and the other as "this guy watching this other guy being an NHL head coach. Everything was new in that respect."
Last postseason, the Penguins fell behind 2-0 to Washington and won in seven games. They trailed Detroit 2-0 and won in seven to bring the Cup home to Pittsburgh for the first time since Lemieux et al did so in 1992. And still there was a feeling in the hockey community that all that was more about the instruments in the band than the man conducting the group. Some in the hockey community suggested Bylsma had won the lottery, coaching the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
This season, the Penguins often were criticized for somehow not measuring up. They got handled easily by Washington and New Jersey in the regular season, and many believed they would be ripe to be knocked off by either team in the playoffs.
"Our team has had to answer a fair amount of questions," Bylsma said. He admits some of the skepticism has been hard to take, even for a guy who is the master of the even keel. "It's hard to not be a little defensive about players that you believe in and whom you've worked with and who you've come to trust. You're like a parent in that regard.
"I'm invested and our coaches are invested in this group," he said. "Have we been perfect? No."
But they've been better than perhaps people gave them credit for being. The Caps and Devils were ousted in the first round, while the Penguins are two wins away from advancing to their third straight Eastern Conference finals.
Of course, the Montreal Canadiens are just two wins away from a second straight shocking upset. But no one said this was going to be easy, right?
Shero said he respects the way Bylsma communicates with his staff and players. "He's had to make hard decisions," Shero said.
Bylsma benched veteran Petr Sykora in the playoffs last season. He has benched Ruslan Fedotenko, a two-time Cup winner, this spring. Alexei Ponikarovsky, brought in at the trade deadline ostensibly as a top-six forward, has bounced around the lineup.
"He's made tough decisions and he's been able to sit players without losing them," Shero said.
If there is a way to beat the odds, perhaps it's in not expecting history to repeat itself, at least not note for note. Internally, the team has talked often about that.
"How what we're doing this year has nothing to do with last year," Bylsma said. He talked to former Cup winners, both within the game and outside. He tried to anticipate the ups and downs, the pitfalls and hurdles.
"But you still have to live it," Bylsma said.
Now, we'll see whether Bylsma can get his team another step closer to setting history on its ear.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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